When Ambassador John Bolton joined the administration as President Trump’s national security adviser, I wondered just how long he would last. I would have guessed three months; that he lasted 18 surprised me.
I’ve known Mr. Bolton for decades and couldn’t imagine him fitting into Trumpworld. Like many presidents before him, President Trump seems to get along best with advisers who unfailingly agree with him and cater to his ego. Mr. Bolton has never been a man capable of providing just the advice one wants to hear.
The ambassador began his Washington career as my intern in the Nixon White House in the summer of 1972. Then a young Yale law student and protege of professors Alexander Bickel, Robert Bork and Ralph Winter, Baltimore was his home town and I was an aide to Vice President Spiro Agnew. He was smart, hardworking and opinionated, and I liked him.
At the end of the summer, John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s top advisers, called the interns together and said that he and the president hoped that as they returned to school in the fall they would spend as much time as possible campaigning for the president’s re-election. My intern piped up to inform Erlichman that he hadn’t yet decided whether he could even vote for Nixon let alone campaign for him.
Mr. Bolton rarely if ever holds back. He is the aide higher ups always say they want, but don’t. Most politicians cannot bear a truth-teller; aides who tell them daily what a great job they are doing thrive. Mr. Bolton is as likely to let them know where they screwed up, albeit with a healthy dose of why and how to fix it.
Honesty and this willingness to speak truth to power is rare and even more rarely rewarded in a Washington where one makes enemies by disagreeing with one’s superiors or the day’s common wisdom. Mr. Bolton is one of the few who have risen in this town in spite a quiet informed but certain style that irritates the comfortable bureaucratic milieu in which he has worked for so long.
“Tell all” books fall into a genre I do not admire and I’m not even sure I would have advised Mr. Bolton to write such a book so soon after leaving the White House, but I will read it if only because the president this week described the author as a “liar.” John Bolton is many things, but he is no liar. One can disagree with his views as I sometimes do, or even his conclusions. It is even possible that in one meeting or another, some attendees might have come away with a different impression as to the meaning of what transpired in the room, but John Bolton is no liar.
The initial coverage of the Bolton book has focused on a few titillating anecdotes and Mr. Bolton’s view that almost all of the president’s decisions have been based in part at least on his personal political interests. This upsets Mr. Bolton as perhaps it should, but hardly makes Donald J. Trump unique. To a greater or lesser extent every president has an eye on the next election as he makes decisions that in an ideal world would be made on other grounds. It was true of Franklin Roosevelt in the days before Pearl Harbor and John Kennedy’s calculations in dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt was looking for an issue to propel him to a second term when a Berber “pirate” named Raisuli kidnapped Ion Perdicaris, a man he assumed to be an American citizen, in Morocco and demanded a ransom from the United States for his release. Many Americans are familiar with the outlines of the crisis that followed from the 1975 movie “The Wind and the Lion.”
In refusing to ransom an American, the president announced at the Republican Convention that summer that he was sending a battle fleet to the area to demand “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!” It became his party’s battle cry that fall. Shortly after he issued his ultimatum, the president was informed by his secretary of State that they had a problem. Roosevelt had dispatched the fleet to rescue an American citizen, but as the secretary informed him, we were risking war for purely political reasons because on investigation he had discovered that Perdicaris was not an American citizen at all.Roosevelt’s reply, according to historian Barbara Tuchman: “He is now.”
Teddy won that fall and other former presidents who did essentially what John Bolton accuses Mr. Trump of were also rightly or wrongly re-elected. When voters see the alternative our current president may join them.
• David Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.